I remember the day as if it were yesterday.
It was late at night. I was still up with the leaders of a church I had been working with. They had a member who left their church, but had now returned. Most leaders would be thrilled at the return of someone who had left. However, thrilled didn’t describe the attitude in the room. Words like confused, uncomfortable, and uneasy might be better.
George was attending the church again. The only thing — George was now Georgia. George had transitioned to a woman.
The leaders were baffled. They felt action might be necessary and asked me to come in and talk with them. In a church like this one, having a transgendered person in their midst was rocking their world. For years, tradition had been protected; the old guard still controlled, and fear of the changing culture impacting their church was growing. That night, their fear became reality.
“We’re gonna get messy!” one of them groaned.
“You need to be a messy church.” I replied, as the room grew silent.
Here was my challenge: How do I help them walk in the tension of grace and truth as it relates to leadership in the church?
The church rightly believed that God created sexual intimacy to be expressed between a man and a woman in the context of marriage. They also desired to be a community that anyone could come to, but didn’t want to approve of just any relationship choice.
So, how does a church leadership begin to think through this challenge? Here are three principles to remember while having discussions about LGBT people and your church.
#1. Don’t reduce an LGBT person to sexual orientation.
I listened to the leaders quote verses on LGBT relationships before I finally chimed in, “You realize there’s more to an LGBT person than who they want to have sex with?”
Some of them looked stunned. “Well, yeah,” one leader replied. “They’re obviously people.”
“Exactly!” I answered. Now we were getting somewhere.
I told them about my mom and her partner, Vera. One time, my mom told me that she and Vera hadn’t been sexually active for years. It shocked me that they still called themselves lesbians. My mom then gave me one of the biggest insights that I’ve ever had. “The gay community is filled with my friends, generosity, creativity, acceptance, relatable people, a movement, and more.”
For her, the main issue was identity — and sexual attraction wasn’t the biggest factor. I believe many Christians think LGBT sexual intimacy is the main item that needs to be addressed. While I fully support that sexual intimacy outside of a heterosexual marriage is a sin, I don’t think that should be the starting point for a relationship.
Christian leaders need to get to know and build relationships with those in their congregation who identify as LGBT. Spend time with a lesbian couple, get to know a gay man, ask questions of the LGBT people who don’t attend your church.
Listen to people. Hear their stories. Each person is a mosaic of experiences, hurts, joys, upbringing, beliefs, and more. Let me say it another way — treat people like people, not like evangelistic projects. So, get to know them.
My main goal has never been to change someone’s sexual orientation. The mission has always been to bring people to Jesus. But God — not us — is the expert in the “life change department.” Don’t shy away from talking about holy living. We have to stand for truth, but we also need to care enough about people to build and engage in relationships with them. God will give margin for conversations on holy living as a relationship grows.
#2. Create a safe environment to ask questions.
As I sat in the room that night with the leaders, they began to ask questions like:
What bathroom will Georgia use?
Should Georgia get the surgery back to being a guy before being baptized?
How long until one of us confronts Georgia?
What is to be done when a church member is rude to Georgia?
These questions and more dominated the conversation.
Before we get too frustrated with some of the questions being asked, let me say this — at least they were asking questions. To me, it meant a lot that they were willing to have discussion rather than just push an individual out of the church. If someone asks questions like the ones above, it might mean they’re judgmental, but not necessarily. It could simply reveal that they’ve never been in a position to think deeper about someone who identifies as LGBT.
As the son of a gay dad and a lesbian mom, I understand the importance of conversations when it comes the any issue that touches on LGBT people. As a child who was raised in the LGBT community and saw the hostility of Christian extremists and LGBT extremists, I believe in the power of safe environments.
When we don’t allow questions, we promote misunderstanding, fear, shame, and, ultimately, rejection. When we give room for tough questions in leadership meetings, our faith in God and compassion for people grows.
If your church creates a safe environment for a teenager to question his sexuality (or even to come out of the closet), you might actually be saving a life. The suicide rate among teenagers who identify as LGBT is pretty high. I know of so many teenagers who wouldn’t tell their parents — much less their youth leader — about their same-sex attraction. We should be quick to listen, willing to journey with people, and slow to get angry. Unfortunately, these aren’t the initial first steps of most churches.
Creating a bunch of policies to protect the church is the first response of some leaders. Every church has policies — whether staff, elder, deacon, ministry, volunteer — and that’s not a bad thing. Policies protect, but we should be careful how many policies we create.
Churches should be even more cautious about how we advertise policies to the congregation. Making policies public about who can serve in a ministry, what kind of couple of can join a small group, or who can be on the worship team can stop a potentially life-changing relationship.
Let’s say your church has a policy about who can serve where. An LGBT person attends your church and likes it. He asks about a ministry to serve in, but immediately sees there’s no way he could ever serve. Guess what? He’s gone, and a chance to love him for the Gospel has vanished.
On the other hand, maybe a conversation is better. What if a leader actually sits down with an LGBT person, hears her story, and finds out things he never knew? Maybe the LGBT person is single by biblical conviction, confused, in a relationship but questioning, in a same-sex relationship, etc. Perhaps there’s another area the individual could participate in?
Conversations are paramount.
#3. Remember that the tax collector was closer to God than the Pharisee.
I ended the evening with the parable about the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. You probably know the story. The two are praying to God. The Pharisee is self-righteous and pats himself on the back. The tax collector stands in the distance and asks for mercy. The audience was under the impression that Pharisees are always closer to God. Jesus unpacks the real truth. The tax collector is humble, stands at a distance, sin causes him physical pain, his eyes are focused on the floor, and he simply asks for mercy.
One of these things is not like the other . . .
The point is clear: the tax collector is closer to God.
Sometimes we forget this takeaway. For far too long, some Christians who attend service weekly, participate in Bible studies, serve, and go on mission trips think themselves closer to God than the one struggling in sin. That’s just not true.
Maturity is in the struggle, not performance.
Growing in Christ is a journey, not a one-time event.
Relationship with God hinges on dependence, not independence.
Intimacy with God is found in examining yourself first, not others.
Shutting people out of church who love God, are honestly looking for answers, or want solid relationships is nothing short of betraying the precious blood of Christ. God didn’t send His Son to die on the cross for us to create our own country club. Churches that don’t allow for messy conversations will become Pharisee factories. Churches that refuse to theologically and lovingly engage the cultural issues of our day will eventually die — and they probably should.
I’m proud to say that the church I talked with made the decision to love others without compromising biblical conviction.
They’re now a messy church loving all kinds of messy people.
I hope your church will be messy too.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Read more in Caleb Kaltenbach’s new book, Messy Grace: How a Pastor with Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction.